Blogs > Cliopatria > James Banner: Review of Sean Wilentz's The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln

May 7, 2006 10:56 pm

James Banner: Review of Sean Wilentz's The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln

[James M. Banner Jr., a historian in Washington, is co-director of the History News Service.]

SOME BOOKS ARE ALL ATTITUDE; others all balance, sobriety, and calm. This one is of the latter kind, which may come as a surprise to those who have known the author through his earlier work, especially his 1984 Chants Democratic, a superb, edgy study of the creation of New York City's working class before 1850. There, Sean Wilentz put himself on the side of the workies, and of much of the striving social history of the time, of which he proved a master. That book was part of a body of scholarship seeking to understand the history of the kind of people--the women and African Americans, as well as the laboring men, who deviated from the white, male, middle-class norm--so often overlooked in the traditional histories of the United States.

The makings of Wilentz's new work could have been detected in that first one. It was fully attentive to detail while reaching for a comprehensive perspective, and it revealed an empathetic understanding of its diverse human subjects. It was also attuned to politics, policies, and institutions--some of the attributes often missing from social history. Here, in a major book that builds out from his earlier work, Wilentz reveals the rest of himself. Less actively engaged in his material, he gives us a work that's grander and even more masterful.

The most remarkable characteristic of The Rise of American Democracy is its unblinking focus on the nation's political life and institutions between 1789 and the Civil War. It's likely that most readers won't find that remarkable at all. They'll assume that politics and political institutions should be at the center of the "master narrative" (as it's now called) of any national history. How, after all, can one write the history of democracy's emergence from the elite, deferential society of the Revolutionary era, except in political terms?

In fact, there are other ways, other emphases--so many, in fact, that during the past 40 years, when social and cultural history were making their great, historiography-shaking advances in American letters, political historians often felt that they were carrying on a rearguard campaign against the disappearance of their subject. Of course, that subject never disappeared, and was unlikely to do so. If it had, Wilentz couldn't have written this book--or at least couldn't have written it the way he has done, as he in effect acknowledges in his exhaustive citations to others' work and occasional, but unobtrusive, issue-taking with some fellow historians. A political history that appropriates social history where needed, The Rise of American Democracy should be seen as a purposeful demonstration that a grand history of politics can still bear the weight of authoritative interpretation.

The work is a summation of current understanding of the political history of the first 75 years of the republic, and it's hard to conceive of a better summary for our times, if taken on its own terms.

Wilentz insists on the centrality to the national narrative of the growth of popular government in the United States--that is, of the emergence from elite rule of participatory politics--starting in the earliest days of the republic. "The mysterious rise of American democracy," he writes, "was an extraordinary part of the most profound political transformation in modern history: the triumph of popular government--and of the proposition--if not fully the reality--that sovereignty rightly belongs to the mass of ordinary and equal citizens."

How that triumph--or at least the triumph of white, male democracy--came about by 1865 is the burden of 800 pages of text, pages that occasionally weary the reader by their detail but never by the scale or nature of their subject. And it's a sobering tale, not so much for the outcome (which, while limited by 1865, was substantial) as for the complexity of it all.

Wilentz is at great pains to analyze that complexity. The first phase of political democracy didn't leap forth, Athena-like, fully formed from the Founders' heads. An external authority didn't impose it, nor was it independent of the larger culture of religion, institution, economy, and intellect. Instead, it was built in response to events, contested every step of the way, and, as Wilentz reminds us, never uniformly envisaged or even fully understood by most participants.

Given the diversity of the American population, the grievances of those (especially women, African Americans, and natives) intentionally excluded from the franchise and from wider participation in American life, and the play of events (not all of them domestic) between the Revolution and Civil War, it's the author's supreme achievement somehow to control his materials. Just the names of the various political factions--Tertium Quids, Barnburners, Locofocos--that have walk-on parts in this drama, after confusing generations of students, are threats enough to any reader's attentiveness. But Wilentz never lets their necessary coverage get in the way of the larger tale.

So what is the principal theme? All readers will find in a tale as tangled as this what disposition and interest lead to. But one of Wilentz's indisputably signal achievements is to keep firmly in view two sets of contesting ideas of democracy that existed throughout the pre-Civil War era. Both were in evidence before 1787. Both established themselves firmly as enduring features of American politics after that. Both were fateful.

One set of opposing ideas centered on the tension between rural farmers and artisans on the one hand, and urban workingmen on the other, over the market economy: The value, supply, and control of money, the form and extent of taxation, the nature of trade and commerce, and the sale, settlement, and ownership of land. It played itself out in alternating demands by rural and urban working people for influence over the politics of these issues--demands that had, first, to be satisfied by their gaining the franchise and then by their beginning to elect to public office men who were not of the old gentry.

While it's not possible fully to pull this contest apart from the other one, it was central to the epic battles between political parties. It was also responsible for the political emergence in the 1820s of the hero of New Orleans, Andrew Jackson. Unlike Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, whose enduring political visions open and close the volume, Jackson is the figure who bestrides the book, just as he did its great predecessor, Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s The Age of Jackson (1945), whose propulsive energy is one of the very few qualities that Wilentz's book lacks in like measure.

Unlike some recent historians and biographers, Wilentz has a kind of grudging respect for Jackson, and can retain his interpretive balance even when writing of the Tennesseean's destructive and controversial Indian-removal policies. If one closes the book without sharing the author's modest weakness for this president, there's no denying either the difficult choices that Jackson's two administrations faced, and the consequences of those decisions, or the undeniable fact (as Wilentz writes) that the Jacksonians "created the first mass democratic national political party in modern history."

Many of Jackson's acts, such as his attack on the Second Bank of the United States, were localistic, pig-headed, and ideological. Others, like his response to the South Carolina Nullifiers in 1832-33, were shrewd and coldly nationalistic. Yet it's hard to imagine the triumph of popular government without Jackson and his followers. Jackson's vision, his grudges, and his combination of stout localism and unswerving nationalism faced in two directions. They emerged from Jefferson's often-mystic agrarianism and continentalism and led inexorably to Lincoln's determined unionism. Wilentz is right to place Jackson at the center of this work.

The other contested set of ideas concerned the status of labor itself, especially white laboring people's mastery over African Americans, both slave and free. As the 19th century wore on, this tension manifested itself sectionally. The South became the terrain of a kind of herrenvolk democracy, in which one race, all of whose participants mistakenly believed themselves to be engaged as free agents in politics and society, ruled over another, in this case for the purpose of exploiting that race's physical labor. Plantation owners psychologically empowered small white farmers to make common cause with them over black slave labor; southern political democracy constructed itself in racial terms.

In the North, scarcely less racist in its attitudes, a greatly lower proportion of blacks led early to gradual emancipation, and thus greatly weakened the identification of work with race. As a result, an ideology of honorable, free labor helped fuel attacks on entrenched political and other privilege, and effectively led (by the time of the Civil War) not only to white manhood suffrage but also to the growing conviction that the spread of the slave system had to halt and make way for white, laboring voters.

Only the War for the Union could decide which form of democracy would prevail, and the North's did. Wilentz concludes with a riveting photograph of a postwar Virginia jury of 12 men, seven of whom are black. The shared responsibility for democratic society by members of both races, like those dozen jurymen, was the promise of political democracy wrested from the South by war. But it was a promise soon aborted and not fully realized until our own time.

These themes by no means make up the entire structure of the book, nor do they exhaust its virtues, of which there are many. Every history like this must take up certain basic topics. Wilentz's coverage of most is superb, his pages on the Democratic-Republican Societies of the 1790s, and the Missouri Compromise of 1820, for instance, being particularly penetrating models of their kind. A single page on John Brown is beyond compare.

Wilentz rarely takes his eyes off the states, where so much of the day's political action was located--and where readers may sometimes tire. He joins a line of recent interpretation that holds higher the presidential achievements of James Madison than earlier historians did. He fails to give enough credit to the Federalists and Whigs, the conservative political forces of their days, for their contributions to the emergence of democracy. And--signs of his old self--he occasionally falls into the trap of seeing workers allied with the Jacksonians as rational, and those voting for the Whigs as elite-led and passive. But these are small faults in such a massive work.

For all the book's achievements, it would be a mistake to think that Wilentz's presentation of the slow emergence of white manhood democracy by the time of the Civil War is the history of "the rise of democracy" in all its many possible forms. It's the history of the rise of political democracy. But what of social and cultural democracy? Here, a fuller, parallel history could have been interleaved to good effect. Yes, the book would have been even thicker and heavier. But it would have had more about voluntary associations, about reform societies and religion, about the emergence to positions of great moral authority and effective administrative capacity of thousands of women, about the great democratic literary renaissance typified by the works of Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and, especially, Walt Whitman.

To limit the story principally to political issues, movements, developments, and institutions makes it possible for Wilentz to prove his point about the robust life that remains in history told from a political perspective. But it also truncates the story and prevents it from becoming the even grander-scope saga that it might have been.

Nevertheless, the narrative Wilentz offers of the extension of political democracy is unsurpassed as the American nation's--indeed, any nation's--central narrative. For the United States, only one other such narrative is available to rival it: The stitching together of a nation from all the people on the face of the earth, the emergence of political, social, and cultural democracy for all Americans from the welter of humans and traditions that have composed the nation from its birth. That's a different tale from the one Wilentz chooses to convey; he cannot be criticized for the choice he has made. But a reader should bear in mind that there does remain the option of telling the story otherwise.

Yet do either of these narratives serve the search for what historians used to call a usable past? Surely none would dispute that, in our fractured world, both story lines can offer beacons of hope and guidance to those attempting to create democracy and comity out of the wreckage of tyranny and tribalism.

There does, however, remain one other grand way of telling the American story, one rarely ventured, even though we ourselves need to understand it. After all, other people--the British, Canadians, Australians, French, even the Germans--can teach the world about democracy and market economies. Some others can set examples of how to build multiethnic and multiracial societies. But what of the history of an open society, a society in which all that is not harmful to others is tolerated and permitted? Americans probably do about as good a job of managing an open society as can be conceived, despite our bitter battles, our stumbles, and sometimes our outright failures. Yet, alongside the number of histories of democracy, and of the peopling of the United States, one is hard-pressed to find a single history of the nation told as the history of the emergence of an open society from a closed one.

Until we have such a history, this will stand as the best available account of the growth of political democracy in the United States in the first three-quarters of a century of government under the Constitution. It is difficult to imagine a better one.

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Jason KEuter - 5/10/2006

The same praise could be given to Wilentz's book on Jackson.

Regarding Wilentz's departure from social history (which should really be called left wing history); I think he's still telling that social history. He has simply abandonded the quasi-Marxist premises of "social" history.

Social history starts, firts and foremost, with the premise that the lives of ordinary people have been ignored in favor of elites. Social historians generally believe that this has traditionally been done to devalue the masses, which makes them primed to accept elite rule and not assert their destiny to rule the world. Thus social history is generally premised on the erroneous insistence that the American masses have not been an important part of governance. The masses are said to have costructed alternate identities, despite the soul crushing imperatives of elite rule, and it is in these alternate idenities that the left says we can find a usable past, untainted by the sins presumably inherent to elite rule.

These social histories have largely been implausible, romanticized portraits - a hagiography of the left that seeks to elevate an abstraction into the embodiement of virtue. Always at pains to distance themselves from communists in power, social historians have nonetheless created a series of homespun American icons that differ little in intent from Soviet films of Ukranian Wheat Farmers pitching hay in perfect, musical synchornicity.

Social historians are quasi-Marxists hiding from some pretty fundamental truths about American History, and the first truth is that it is the story of democracy - in all of its imperfections. And the will of various segments of the AMerican people has been felt throughout his history. The problem is, the results are not always very pretty, especially if you tenaciously cling to enlightenment era delusions about democracy capacity to perfect man. As long as man is not fit to be an icon, then democracy cannot be said to purely exist.

Another strain of social history takes a Paradise Lost approach and argues that we are burdened with the punishment of living after the fall. Populists, Civil Rights Activists, and even Wilentz's Locofoco's all represtented great democratic possibilities that were cut short. We now live in a present in which few participate "meaningfully"; democracy is said to exist in form, but it is never "substantive" (code for policy that conforms to a far-left agenda that left-wing scholars can't admit is anathema to the American people).

But one look at the role polls play in our democracy should call this view into question. If anything, we have abandonded an earlier republican tradition, that moderated the views of the masses, in favor of a policy making process that more closely approximates all of the pitfalls of direct democracy. Much of our policy is poll driven, our elections are poll driven and even our PResidential speeches are poll driven. The left wing scholar will object that its all manipulative and serves elites, and it often is and often does, but they will also wrongly argue that it is thus not democratic.

But the left is trapped in its romantic view of democracy and is thus incapable of realizing that the masses exert an enormous influence on American politics and one of the results is exactly this kind of demagoguery that is inherent to democratic rule.

The left insists it is a residue of an archaic past. That is why the left beleives that all of the major conflicts of the American past remain unresolved. And because they remain unresolved, we can't be said to live in a democracy - because good, noble and virtuous people would solve these problems and usher in a gulag free communist utopia in which the philosopher kings of the brain trust would exercise a virtue saving veto....just in case the people reverted to one of their ugly habits of a mostly imaginary past.